“It’s Not Personal, It’s Strictly Business” – An Ethical Perspective

This famous statement by Michael Corleone (actor Al Pacino ) in the 1972 block buster movie “The Godfather”, has, in a very real way, become a cornerstone of modern competitive business practice. Modern business owners sometimes use this line to justify an action or business decision which is at variance with what they truly know to be right and moral. Put another way, “as an individual, I hold myself to a high standard of ethical behavior, but as a business owner, I do what I must to get ahead”.

This double standard allow us to compartmentalize different aspects of our lives, so we can pretend to uphold high standards of truth, honesty, and ethical behavior as individuals, while we lie, cheat, steal (or as in the case of Don Corleone, kill) our way to business success.

As a practicing Christian and licensed CPA, I encounter moral dilemmas in business transactions all the time. For example, a surprising number of business owners will knowingly under-report income or overstate business expenses for tax purposes (i.e. commit tax fraud), if they think they can get away with it. I have seen business owners misrepresent the truth in order to secure a negotiating advantage and then thank God for granting them success in their venture, as if by some means, God has endorsed their lie.

None of us is immune to the temptation to compromise and adopt double standards. For some of us however, years of practice has made it easy to do so, to the extent that we can no longer distinguish between what is morally right in business and what is not.

Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and it sets the standard of excellence to which we aspire. The fundamental Biblical principle for our dealing with others, including our business dealings, is that we treat others the same way we would want to be treated ourselves. The principle of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the moral antithesis to “its not personal its strictly business”. This requirement to treat others as we would want others to treat us, forces us not to lie, cheat and steal, since no-one whats these injustices to be inflicted upon them. If we apply this Biblical principle, then business is always personal, since it is our personal convictions that drive our business dealings.

Even if you are not persuaded by Christian beliefs, there are some very good reasons for adopting a high standard of moral and ethical principle in your business dealings. For one thing, it sets you apart as a business person of integrity and establishes a basis of long term trust with others. Doing the right thing, even at the cost of profit and gain, establishes creditability in the eyes of our customers, employees and peers. People trust us more and want to buy from us, work for us and associate with us. Do not deceive yourself into thinking that the corner you cut with your customer, or the lie you tell your supplier, goes unnoticed. You may get away with it once or twice, but is always catches up with you. In many cases doing business that way becomes a habit and at some point someone will find you out. The Bible cautions us that “Be sure your sin will find you out”. Even if our customers never notice or the IRS never catches you, your employees and your accountant know what kind of business person you are, and word will get out. Incidentally, employees are more likely to steal from business owners who they see cheat their customers, than those who do not.

Lying and cheating your way to success may make you wealthy, but that wealth comes with a price. Though Michael Corleone is a fictional character, there are some truths to be observed in his life story. The bottom line is this; what is the value of money, wealth and influence, if your family, friends and colleagues lose all respect for you?

My advice to every business owner is as follows:

Set a moral compass over your business. Determine that your business is personal and it must reflect the same standard for honesty and integrity that you set for yourself.

Communicate your core values to your employees and especially to family members who work for you. The Biblical military leader Joshua, made a statement for all ages when he said, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”. Put another way, “this is my business and when you work for me, we do things the right way. What you do when you leave here is up to you”.

Lead by example. Some companies publish mission and value statements that are full of lofty ideals and words depicting high standards of integrity and customer service. Unless the persons responsible for setting these ideals also sets the example by following the code, then your mission and value statements are meaningless.

It is never too late to start doing the right thing. Very often a change of direction requires repentance, which is a willingness to recognize that you have been going in the wrong direction and a commitment to do what you must, to make it right. Repentance requires courage and character and is certainly never the easiest way out. In my experience however, it is always rewarded by a promise of better things to come.

Good luck with your business.